Foreign Policy Watch: India-Sri Lanka

Lankan Fishermen Oppose Proposal to License Indian Fishermen


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: NA

Mains level: India- SL fisherman issue


Sri Lanka’s northern fishermen fiercely oppose the government’s plan to issue licenses to Indian fishermen to enter Sri Lankan waters, terming the move a “serious setback” to their nearly 15-year-long struggle.

Recent development

  • The Sri Lankan government has proposed issuing fishing licenses to Indian fishermen to fish in Sri Lankan waters.
  • The proposal has been met with fierce opposition from Northern Province fishermen who view it as a threat to their livelihoods and an infringement on their fishing rights.
  • Indian fishermen have been accused of using illegal fishing methods and damaging the marine ecosystem, which has further fueled tensions between the two groups.
  • The conflict over fishing rights has led to violence and arrests on both sides.

Issues for Sri Lanka

  • Proliferation of Trawlers: The overuse of mechanized trawlers in Palk Bay is damaging the marine ecosystem in SL waters.
  • Breach of sovereignty: There were many favorable reasons too for Indian fishermen as their access to Sri Lankan waters was easier at the time of Sri Lankan civil war.
  • Porous borders: Maritime boundaries were never tightly guarded as a result, Indian trawlers continue to routinely enter Lankan waters for fishing.
  • End of Civil War: Everything changed in 2009 with the end of civil war. Arrests and attacks increased on Indian fishermen as they continued entering Lankan waters because of depletion of marine resources on the Indian side.

Fishermen’s concern:

(1) Depletion of fisheries

  • There is a depletion of fisheries on the Indian side, so Indian fishermen cross into Sri Lankan waters thus denying the livelihood of their counterparts.
  • They deliberately cross the territorial waters even at the risk of getting arrested or shot dead by the Sri Lankan Navy.
  • Sri Lankan fishermen across Palk Bay are concerned over similar depletion on their side (where there is a ban for trawlers) because of poaching by Indian fishermen.

 (2) Rights over Katchatheevu Island

  • Tamil fishermen have been entering Sri Lankan waters nearby Katchatheevu island, where they had been fishing for centuries.
  • In 1974, the island was ceded to Sri Lanka after an agreement was signed by Indira Gandhi between the two countries without consulting the Tamil Nadu government.
  • The agreement allows Indian fishermen “access to Katchatheevu for rest, for drying of nests and for the annual St Anthony’s festival” but it did not ensure the traditional fishing rights.

(3) Hefty fines

  • After some respite in the last couple of years, Sri Lanka introduced tougher laws banning bottom-trawling and put heavy fines for trespassing foreign vessels.
  • SL has increased the fine on Indian vessels found fishing in Sri Lankan waters to a minimum of LKR 6 million (about ₹25 lakh) and a maximum of LKR 175 million (about ₹17.5 Crore).
  • Quiet often, the fishermen are shot dead by SL marines.

Fishermen issue in TN politics

  • It has been often a sensitive political issue in Tamil Nadu in the past one decade.
  • In a defiant speech in 1991, late CM Jayalalitha had called on the people of Tamil Nadu to retrieve the Katchatheevu Island.

Way forward

  • Leasing: Two courses of action exist: (1) get back the island of Katchatheevu on “lease in perpetuity” or (2) permit licensed Indian fishermen to fish within a designated area of Sri Lankan waters and vice versa.
  • Licensing: The second course of action would persuade Colombo to permit licensed Indian fishermen to fish in Sri Lankan waters for five nautical miles from the IMBL.
  • Reconsidering old agreements: The 2003 proposal for licensed fishing can be revisited.
  • Looping in fishermen themselves: Arranging frequent meetings between fishing communities of both countries could be systematized so as to develop a friendlier atmosphere mid-seas during fishing.


  • The underlying issues of the fisheries dispute need to be addressed so that bilateral relations do not reach a crisis point.
  • Immediate actions should be taken to begin the phase-out of trawling and identify other fishing practices.

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